The South Pacific has always seemed to me like the ultimate adventure. Coming from Spain, it is literally the other side of the world. The realm of intrepid adventurers and fantasists. Where only a few foreigners dare to go. Only the ‘palagi’ or people ‘from the sky’ such as Isabel Barreto, the first woman to head a Spanish naval expedition and one of the first westerners to set foot in the Marquesas and Solomon Islands (important note: I admire her spirit of adventure but not her colonising attempts), and my beloved RL Stevenson, author of my favourite book, Treasure Island, who sailed from San Francisco, crossed the South Pacific, and ultimately settled down and died in Samoa.
Even more importantly, the South Pacific is the dominion of a multitude of fascinating and diverse cultures, who were able to not just adapt but thrive in extremely difficult conditions. The greatest navigators that the world has ever seen, who sailed from island to island, from South East Asia to the remote Easter Island, reading the constellations in the sky. A huge feat in any case but even more given they first did it 3,000 years ago.
So when the time comes for me to plan my first incursion in the South Seas, I take it very seriously. There are many factors to consider and the island needs to be carefully selected. After much thinking, it is RL Stevenson’s legacy in Samoa what ultimately swings the balance in its favour. I am travelling with my cousin Cristina, who has agreed to join me in this pursuit of the island paradise.
We arrive to its sedate capital, Apia, after almost two days of travelling. From Europe to Auckland by way of Dubai and Brisbane, and then direct flight to Samoa. I am full of nervous anticipation. I have read that you never forget the smell of arriving to your first Pacific island, balmy frangipani in the air, and I get my nostrils ready for the memory. Nothing. I keep trying but the expected seductive smell remains elusive. I can only feel the cold AC of the airport and the bus taking us to our hotel. The charm of Samoa will invade me in the days to come, but arriving by plane is clearly not as romantic as the ship arrivals my admired writers had experienced.
Our first hotel is Apaula Stay-inn, which becomes our home whenever we stay in Apia during our trip. It is managed by a very friendly and warm all-female local family. The property has lovely views overlooking the bay, simple but charming rooms and a delicious breakfast – make sure you ask for the superb Samoan hot chocolate, its pure taste melts in your mouth, without the bitterness of some higher grade chocolates. After savouring the abundant breakfast in Apaula’s kitchen (it does genuinely feel like staying in someone’s home) and swapping stories with other travellers, we are eager to commence our adventure. First we need to get a local driving licence, in order to rent a car (which we arrange through Apaula) and start our road trip around Samoa.
Samoans trace their origin to Tagaloa, the creator of all things and supreme ruler of the universe. He first made the heavens, and to create the earth, the legend says he retrieved two big stones from the bottom of the sea- one is the island of Upolu (where Apia is located) and the other one is Savai’i. Our plan is to circle both islands, crossing by ferry from Upolu to Savai’I, where we will go diving. We will end up the trip back in Apia, visiting the house of RL Stevenson in Vailima, located just outside the city.
The driving licence turns out to be a mere conversation at a local kiosk, so we are ready to go in a matter of minutes. We leave Apia headed for the island of Namu’a, in the east coast, where we will be spending the night. The road follows the coast and I try to take in the sights as much as I can. I am in the South Pacific! It looks exactly as I expected – volcanic, cone-like mountains, a wide range of green shades, lush tropical vegetation, all overlooking a blue blue sea that looks like adventure and dreams of Polynesian navigators. By the time I look at the road again we seem to have gone too far and we are stuck in the bumpy path which is clearly too much for the city car we have rented. We humbly return to the main road and accept this is not the time to risk getting a puncture in a deserted road.
We stop at the Piula cave pool to freshen up before we arrive to the departing point for the island, a shop that sells mainly corned beef and coconut cakes. We stock up on the later and leave the car there until the following day. We take a boat to the island, uninhabited but for Namua’a Island Beach Fales. The accommodation is simple but the island is so idyllic that we don’t need anything else. It is my birthday and I cannot think of a better way to celebrate it. We lazily lounge in our fale, the traditional Samoan hut, built on stilts on the sand, with only a roof and no walls. It looks dreamy during the day but at night we will struggle to fall asleep with the wind and rain and waves crashing. It is the first time in my life I sleep without walls and it takes some time to get used to the lack of protection, but after a few days it will become our new normal. That night is particularly strange. The family that manages the accommodation leaves and promises to return later, and we are left alone in the island, with the sole company of their dogs. Once darkness falls, the dogs won’t stop barking. When I come out of the fale with my lantern, there’s nothing. They are just barking at the sea. I consider myself quite brave, but after a while, that barking at nothing starts scaring me and I call the family and beg them to come back. I won’t fall asleep until I hear their boat nearing the shore.
The following day we move on to our next fale, this time in Lalomanu beach, one of the most photographed sights of Samoa. It is the most touristic spot we will be staying at for the whole trip, and we even get to see a traditional Samoan dance in the evening, organised by our accommodation, Taofua Beach Fales. The dance is quite impressive, fierce for the men and elegant for the women, who move their hands simulating the undulation of the waves. We spend the next days visiting nearby beaches, snorkelling, and swimming in the instagrammeable To Sua ocean trench, a big lava hole that gets water from the ocean, creating a natural swimming pool.
We drive on, stopping at O Le Pupu Pue National Park. We start with a stroll around the forest and a swim in the waterfall, and then we walk by the sea side, admiring the door-like formations that the sea erosion has created in the rocks. We cross village after village, each one from a different Christian denomination (the churches are the largest buildings in each town), and stop just before sunset. We find a fale in a beach, ask the Matai (local chief) for permission to stay, and we enjoy with him a dinner of taro and Faiai Eleni (fish in coconut cream). By then we are completely habituated to fale life and enjoy falling asleep with the sound of the sea. In the morning, the beach is ours. Coming from a country where being at the beach is mostly a communal experience, with people less than a metre away from you in every direction, I am loving being in paradise all by myself. We snorkel, wander around the coconut trees in awe of our surroundings.
Despite the immense beauty around me, the solitude is making me reflect about the feelings of loneliness and in some cases, misery, that some of my favourite modern writers talk about during their trips to the South Pacific. Gavin Bell, Paul Theroux, Julian Evans. They all have days of utter misery and despair. Reading their books before my trip, I couldn’t help but wonder how could they be unhappy in paradise, surrounded by such splendour. The truth is that these islands are lonely for the traveller. Everyone is very nice and friendly but you spend lots of time alone. It is a family and community driven life, and we are not part of it. Also, when you live so far away from everything else, it is only natural that you lose interest in the outside world. On top of that, the tourists we run into are mostly couples. So I can imagine travelling alone can be quite lonely and isolating, when you are so far away from the world that you know. The authors mentioned above seem to only revive when they are able to spend a long period of time living with a local family.
After a quick pit stop in Apia we cross with the ferry to the island of Savai’I and proceed to circle it, as we have done with Upolu. Our first stop are the blowholes of Alofaaga, where the lava has created holes in the rock by the sea, and when the waves break against them, the water comes out at pressure, like a geyser. Waiting for the water to raise is like waiting for magic to happen. We move from one blowhole to the other trying not to get soaked and get the perfect picture. Years later I watch Moana, the Disney heroine, doing the same thing, and I can’t help but smile.
We stay at Satiatua Beach Fales, run by a family of very welcoming women. They offer me to accompany them to church the following day (it is actually one of the activities on offer – i.e., you have to pay) and I excitedly accept without even asking what type of church it is. I am catholic myself but happy to pray anywhere, and this is the perfect opportunity to spend time with Samoans and learn about their traditions, something we haven’t been able to do much since we started the trip. My cousin doesn’t feel like joining so I will be going by myself.
In the morning I get ready with my nicest lava-lava (Samoan sarong). If there is something we have learnt in the past days, is that you cannot go to church with trousers. The family’s grandma picks me up and we go together to the Methodist church. Sunday is a very important day in the islands, almost everything closes so people can attend church – therefore it is no surprise everyone is dressed up to the nines. We spend a very nice morning listening to sermons and beautiful religious songs in Samoan. The service is also in Samoan so every now and then the grandma translates the key messages to me by writing in a post-it. The moment feels incredibly special and precious, and I try to remember everything so I can preserve this memory.
When the service is finished, I have Sunday lunch with the family, and it’s a real feast. We sit down in one of the airy village meeting houses, which are like a bigger, fancier fale, careful not to point at anyone with our feet (as per local rules of politeness), and food starts coming. Palusami (coconut milk baked in taro leaves), Faiai Eleni, vegetable soup, taro and green banana. I eat as much as it’s polite, and profusely thank the family for this unique opportunity to experience Sunday with them. Yes, I paid for it, but joining them on their day off does feel like a real privilege – and finally being part for the community, even if it’s just for a few hours!
Our journey continues, stopping every time we see a beach we like. We jump in the water or nap under the palm trees, feeling the freedom of not being under a schedule. I also find myself staring at the ocean for long periods of time. Not just admiring its beauty, but wondering what else is out there. As perfect as my surroundings are, when you see the immensity in front of you, you want to see what else lies ahead – fragile atolls, lagoons full of sharks, volcanic islands covered in green. The itch of the explorer! This must have been how the Polynesian voyagers felt before they embarked into journeys into the unknown.
We continue our drive until we get to Manase, where we will be staying a few days to go diving. We start our stay there at Tailua Beach Fales, which has a great beach (yes, even for the local standards), but we will be trying different fales around the village for the coming days (the things you do when you have plenty of time). We dive with Dive Savai’i, a German-run operation which at the time is the only diving school available in the island. The diving is nice but not stunning – lots of the coral is dead, but it still makes for enjoyable, easy dives, which is perfect as my cousin is learning to dive. Note: As of 2018, Samoa has declared all its waters a shark and ray sanctuary, so hopefully the pelagic population in the area is recovering.
We also visit Mount Matavanu, a volcano that it is still active, although its last eruption was in 1911. We go up to visit the crater, guided by the famous ‘Da Craterman’, a self-appointed caretaker of the volcano, that keeps records of every single tourist that has visited him.
Back to Apia, and by now we run into people we know in the supermarket, like taxi drivers. We go back to our favourite spots – Seafood Gourmet for Oka (raw fish with coconut milk, similar to ceviche), Edge for drinks by the harbour, and continue trying all the seaside restaurants. We visit the cathedral and the Museum of Samoa (it is closed and we have to go the Ministry of Education in the adjacent building to ask them to open it), which has a small but interesting collection of Samoa’s German history and its Polynesian culture. Coming from Spain, where we don’t grow up with any female powerful historical figures (with the exception maybe of Queen Isabel I of Castilla, of whom was said that she had as much power as her husband in national matters), I really appreciate the important role that many women have played in the genealogy of Samoa (be it historical figures or just legendary), such as Nafanua, the warrior princess or Taema, who brought the art of tattoo to the islands.
We shop for lava-lavas at the local market (although I have to add that I find the classiest designs at the airport) and for coconut and frangipani oil at Mailelani, a local shop that promotes traditional, natural beauty products. For the weeks to come, it will be these traditional smells of the Pacific that will remind me that I was in the South Seas not so long ago.
Full of expectation, we head to Vailima, RL Stevenson’s final home. I am incredibly excited and I am not disappointed. It is a white, planters style house with a nice garden area and stunning views of the ocean. The property is in excellent condition and very well looked after, testament to the love that Samoa has for Stevenson. I wander around the house, feeling the spirit of the writer and explorer that travelled across the Pacific when it was still relatively isolated from western influence, and made telling the stories of the different islands his mission. I have always admired the deep respect and appreciation he showed for local cultures and traditions, which unfortunately wasn’t always the case with the Europeans who arrived to the South Seas.
The house has a relaxed vibe, probably helped by its airy arrangements and pastel coloured walls, and seems like the perfect place to write for days on end. There are also copies of many of his books in different languages, from the one that inspired this trip, South Sea Tales, to Treasure Island, the book I grew up with and still to this day, I read on a yearly basis. I can see my childhood in front of my very eyes. Treasure Island. At some point I could even repeat by heart entire parts of the book and dialogues of the movie. No book has shaped me more, and to this day, no book represents me more. I don’t seem to be the only one that has been deeply touched by the book, as the famous Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges also has a poem dedicated to Blind Pew, the blind pirate.
After the house we climb up Mount Vaea, where RL Stevenson is buried, after being carried up by the local chiefs. It is a great place for the final rest of such a special person – surrounded by nature, under the shade of the trees and overlooking the bay. It also has the epitaph that he left written himself before he died, and there is no better way to finish this story:
Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me;
“Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”
RL Stevenson, 1850-1894
Arranging the trip:
- Hotels: The one in Apia was booked through Booking.com, everything else was booked on arrival to the place, except the one in Namua’a – we contacted them in advance (+685 751 0231 or +685 758 8209)
- Car: We arranged it through our first accommodation, who also helped us get a local driving licence
- Getting around: There are many taxis operating in Apia
- Diving: We booked it in advance with Dive Savaii through their website http://www.divesavaii.com
- Books to read (about South Pacific as a whole)
- In search of Tusitala: Travels in the Pacific after Robert Louis Stevenson, Gavin Bell
- The happy isles of Oceania, Paul Theroux
- Transit of Venus: Travels in the Pacific, Julian Evans
- South Sea Tales, RL Stevenson
- Journeys to the other side of the world: Further adventures of a young David Attenborough, Sir David Attenborough
- Sea people: The puzzle of Polynesia, Christina Thompson
- Solomon time, Will Randall
- The sex lives of cannibals, J. Maarten Troost
- The last whalers: Three years in the far Pacific with a courageous tribe and a vanishing way of life, Doug Bock Clark
- Blue latitudes: Boldly going where Captain Cook has gone before, Tony Horwitz
Beyond the Coral Sea: Travels in the old empires of the south-west Pacific, Michael Moran
- Films to watch (about South Pacific as a whole)
- Tanna, Martin Butler, Bentley Dean
- Kon-Tiki, Espen Sandberg, Joachim Rønnin
- Women travellers
- We felt very comfortable travelling as two women, even when we had the beach to ourselves, both during the day and at night
- Women should be mindful that is not appropriate to wear shorts around villages, and sarongs/ lava lavas/ skirts should be worn to church
- We felt safe at all times, although sleeping in the open fales felt a bit strange at the beginning
- Nevertheless, be mindful of your belongings and lock the car at night
- April to November is the dry season, but we were there in December and had excellent weather